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After 36 Years of War, Is Peace Really at Hand?

September 22, 1996|Victor Perera | Victor Perera, who teaches at U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, is the author of Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy (California) and The Cross and Pear Tree: A Sephardic Journey (Knopf)

BERKELEY — 'Our struggle has not ended," Comandante Pancho assured his audience at a fund-raiser for the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). "We are suspending hostilities to pursue our goals of achieving social justice by peaceful, political means."

"Pancho" joined the Revolutionary Organization of People in Arms, one of the four groups in the rebel alliance known by its acronym URNG, as a 20-year old architecture student in 1972. His attempts at joviality drew laughs from the crowd but did not conceal the heavy physical toll taken by years of hardship in the mountains, the fallen comrades--his older brother died in combat--and the Draconian sacrifices for a cause he still believes in, though he no longer defends it with a rifle. Comandante Pancho insisted the URNG was not compromising its revolutionary principles by bowing to changing realities on the field.

One of the realities not yet accepted by the URNG is that they lost a 36-year war with the military that everyone has grown deeply sick of. This war weariness is one reason President Alvaro Arzu may be about to conclude the negotiated peace settlement that eluded his predecessors. Another reality that Pancho did not touch on is that the guerrillas' chief achievement may have been the creation of a 40,000-strong military engine of counterinsurgency responsible for the murder and disappearance of 140,000 Guatemalans, most of them indigenous Mayas, and the uprooting of 1 1/2 million villagers who fled into Mexico or live on as internal refugees in the mountains.

Last Thursday, the guerrilla high command and the government signed the last substantive accord in the U.N.-sponsored peace negotiations, on measures to strengthen civilian society in a postwar democratic society and reform the military. Both parties agreed to support constitutional changes to limit the army's role to external defense and to reduce its troop strength by one-third during 1997. Still to be signed are procedural accords to fix a date for the cease-fire and to reintegrate the URNG into society. The knottiest issue yet to be settled is the question of amnesty for all crimes committed by the military and the guerrillas during the war.

Everyone assumes that no generals or guerrilla comandantes will accept accountability for the civilians killed or disappeared, and that the downsizing of the army and its return to the barracks will drag on for years before it becomes reality. Also likely to drag on is the dismantling of the army-sponsored Civil Defense Patrols, turned neighbor against neighbor and raised local caciques to armed despots in hundreds of highland Mayan villages.

Even as the final peace settlement is due to be signed by the end of the year, the task of assigning culpability and prosecuting the culprits has moved off the negotiating tables and into the streets and the offices of human-rights organizations.

Of the three organizations working to prevent the accords from remaining a toothless document, the most visible is the United Nations Verification Mission, MINUGUA, which will complete its commission after a cease-fire is in place. MINUGUA will be succeeded by an independent mission whose tortured official title--Commission for the Historic Clarification of the Violations of Human Rights and the Acts of Violence Suffered by the Guatemalan Population--is Testimony to the United Nations' limitations as an agency for the enforcement and implementation of a negotiated peace.

The Project for the Recuperation of Historical Memory is a creation of the human-rights office of Guatemala City's archdiocese. For two years, Archbishop Penados del Barrio's office has interviewed survivors and relatives of villagers tortured and killed by the army and the guerrillas. The church intends to name those responsible for the massacres, but its power of indictment is mostly symbolic.

The United Nations, the Catholic Church, in collaboration with foreign and national forensic crews, have worked for years digging up bodies in clandestine cemeteries in the Mayan Highlands and elsewhere looking for evidence of torture and murder. In the past weeks, 300 bodies were dug up in Chimaltenango province. The information gathered by the forensic experts will provide the basis for any future prosecution for war crimes against the army or the guerrillas.

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